Acorn Community: An Egalitarian Alternative to the US Mainstream
Living in a commune that aims to transform the basic tenets of capitalism.
Acorn community is composed of 30 adults running an enterprise and sharing land and income. This essay describes the personal experience of living in this commune that wants to change the basic tenets of capitalist economic system and work organization.
“Relationship represents the greatest challenge for the individual, for it is only in relationship to others that unresolved problems still existing within the individual psyche are affected and activated. (…) The friction that arises out of relating with others can be a sharp instrument of purification and self recognition if one is inclined to use it.” — Eva Pierrakos
Talking about my writing project, people often reacted with the binary type of thinking: the change of the economic system is either possible or impossible, the latter opinion represented by the majority of my interlocutors. Instead of this question that can only lead to an impasse, I propose to explore the possibilities of transcending the system in the present moment. The examples of intentional communities and alternative work organization can reveal what kind of human development would be needed as a path towards a postcapitalist life and economy. Pre-capitalist indigenous communities were able to organize their lives differently and had a different culture. Emotional and mental capacities can change over time. So there is no natural way people are but we are conditioned by the present culture and socialization. Communities create certain culture and individuals within communities evolve by participating in them. On a small scale, through building spaces of collective autonomy, systemic change is happening already now.
What is the personal experience of living in a community that wants to change the basic tenets of economic system and work organization? Certainly, each community is different and the individuals living there determine the atmosphere, so my description cannot serve as a base for generalization. Some parts of the text have been already published in three on p2p Foundation Blog articles elaborating on different aspects of the community organization. In this article, I add some aspects that may be of importance for the people considering joining or creating a community, such as human relations, living standards, and free time activities.
What is Acorn community?
Acorn community is a farm based, anarchist, secular, egalitarian community of around 32 folks, based in Mineral, Virginia. It was founded in 1993 by former members of neighboring Twin Oaks community. Acorn is affiliated to the Federation of Egalitarian Communities , a US network of intentional communities that commit to holding in common their land, labor, resources, and income among community members.
Acorn community sustains its members through operating an heirloom and organic seed distribution business, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange () and through subsistence agriculture. The enterprise sells heirloom seeds and provides services helping gardeners grow and preserve them for the next season. They work with about 60 farms that produce seed for them, which they test for good germination, weigh out, and sell or freeze for future use. The seeds are chosen according to their reproduction potential, by which we mean that gardeners can reproduce seeds from the harvest instead of buying them every season. The enterprise conducts and publishes research on the varieties so that customers take less risks when planting them. The orientation on reproducibility of seeds and increasing food autonomy is certainly an alternative to the major seed distributors who have an interest in generating dependency on their seeds. Instead of creating dependency on their seeds, the enterprise focuses on widening their selection, currently having about 700 varieties in stock.
The profits from the business are invested in projects that have broader social change as an objective. The material and human resources of this thriving enterprise are invested in the replication of the model in different settings. It distinguishes them from charity funding, which often is oriented on short-term goals instead of sustainable structures that would improve quality of life. Examples of investments include expanding the infrastructure of the community and helping other communities expand creating a complementary network of egalitarian communities which have developed an internal system of labour exchange. One current initiative, PointA, which wants to bring the community-organization to urban areas and benefit from urban-rural exchanges illustrates how the community’s resources can serve to increase autonomy from market forces through sharing and exchanging.
The members of Acorn community have access to better food than an average US American urban dweller. However, the space is very limited. Three bathrooms and a dry toilet seemed to suffice. Everyone has a small room. I was surprised to see that one kitchen and one washing machine was enough for about thirty people. Inhabitants use collective spaces in an efficient way because everyone has one’s own schedule: some people wake up very early in the morning and some start the day very late. Members share community cars and try to limit their use.
Two (or fifteen) paths towards the community
Two types of paths have brought the interviewees to join the community: either exiting the mainstream model after having integrated into it or the continuation of living outside of this model. The first group’s professions can be exemplified with office workers, IT and marketing specialists, NGO and army employees. They struggled with stress and anxiety. Some reported disillusion with the non-sense of their jobs and the incompetence or cruelty of the people who were higher in organization hierarchy. One of them took antidepressants and another one drank alcohol to numb and deal with the situation. Majority of the interviewees have never really found their place in capitalism’s career system. They joined after finishing high school or completing BA studies in humanities, agriculture, or arts. Their trajectory included travelling, volunteering, or working at family enterprise or some odd jobs. Some of them were involved in Occupy movement or led an alternative life inspired by environmental concerns.
My interviewees mentioned that escaping the stress and anxieties of having a job in the capitalist system and sufferings related to having a boss and pursuing senseless activities were one of their main motivations for joining the community. It freed them from worrying about managing finances, paying bills and organizing daily life on one’s own. Some were motivated by a healthier life and being part of a community. Many interviewees mentioned that their involvement is part of their pursuit of the struggle against capitalism. One of the interviewees got inspired by the book “The Power of Now” and the works by Peter Joseph. Another one, a former environmental political campaigner decided to shift “from oppositional to propositional action.” Many members see their lifestyle as an experiment that may inspire society to change. One needs to take a selection bias into account, though. The 15 individuals that I have interviewed may have agreed to be interviewed because they joined the community to incite a broader change. Therefore, my project of spreading information and further analysis may correspond to their vision and motivation to participate in the community.
Organization of work-life
Acorn does not have many regulations regarding work involvement. The community agrees that currently members should work 42 hours per week on average. However, the actual number of hours worked are not carefully tracked or recorded and individual members are free to choose from a very broad collection of work areas to satisfy their labor obligation to the community. Acorn’s seed business and agricultural work have their own seasonal rhythm and members adjust their schedules to accommodate the needs of the business and the garden. The definition of work within the community, which evolves through long term community conversation, also determines the range of activities that can be undertaken as work. For instance, one of the interviewees wanted such activities as riding a bike (and thus saving fuel) or artistic creation to be counted in the labor quota. Some of the interviewees took the 42-hour work week seriously and resented those who do not do the quota, whereas some others saw the labor quota as a flexible measure for orientation only. Some members I have interviewed did not support the labor quota concept at all and many defined the ideal amount of working hours to be thirty hours per week. So while a frame for work is defined (the 42 hours per week labor quota and what is considered to be work) a spontaneous, self-chosen contribution is possible within this requirement. More on the labor quota at Acorn can be read .
Usually members undertake a couple of projects to which they are committed and the rest of the working time, they help out with the projects of others. Some tasks are announced by a person in charge of a project to which everyone can contribute spontaneously, such as preparing seeds for shipping or weeding in the garden. There is a dry erase white board where domestic tasks like cooking or cleaning can be signed up for in a weekly chart. Many of my interviewees enjoyed the time flexibility at Acorn a lot. Office work, for instance, can be pursued in a fragmented way. There are some constraints to the spontaneity of involvement that are imposed, for instance, by the dates of events that the business attends or by deadlines for shipping. Taking care of animals also imposes certain time schedules. However, even business tasks that impose time schedules are completed in a voluntary and spontaneous way.
Acorn’s members do not receive a salary but rather are granted unconditional access to all the resources and services produced by the members and made available according to their needs (except for tobacco and alcohol). This is supplemented by a small monthly stipend that can cover needs that are not met by the community. All members have the same position in the community. This is one of the reasons why the community calls itself egalitarian. Although I have not interviewed anyone who does not work for the business at all, in theory it is possible to do only domestic jobs, grow food for the community, and engage in other subsistence-related activities to fulfill one’s labor quota.
Members see their participation as a form of resistance to the rules and ailments of the mainstream society. This motivation adds to the way the work contribution is conceived, namely it is based on the awareness that if noone works, the project cannot be sustained. Some members have done a task because they knew that noone else would do it. Two interviewees referred to their upbringing in Protestant work ethics that motivates their contribution.
Another motivating factor is the social pressure. Although there is no control, it would become visible if someone did not work at all. Work is also an engine of social integration. People form groups to accomplish projects and they talk about work also during free time or common meals. A person would find it difficult to resonate with other members if they didn’t work. Most of the interviewees would consider that a person that has stopped working for no medical reason may be suffering and they would try to find out what the matter is. However, this behaviour would not be tolerated for a longer period of time and would lead to upset and resentment on the part of other members. People who have not worked have often decided to leave without being expelled. An interviewee even said that this person avoids members who apparently do not make the labor quota. Social pressure appears also if a person has skills to accomplish a particular task. This person would be asked explicitly to do it.
The limitations of the community living which are imposed by the capitalist system, such as being very close to one another in an isolated place makes it difficult for people to join. Considerations for safety and the personal well-being of community members imposes exclusionary practices. Acorn community has low tolerance for loud people (according to an interviewee) and those unable to respect the personal space of members (BB’s post on their blog that cannot be retrieved anymore). One of the members observed that the dominant culture is white middle class, WASP culture. The outreach and recruiting is not discriminatory but certain personality types are preferred by the members, which leads to a certain degree of homogeneity.
Many of my interviewees described the relationships to other community members as those resembling family relations, like having a lot of brothers and sisters. One member who used to work in his family enterprise before joining Acorn saw a resemblance to such an enterprise. A member of another egalitarian community, East Wind, thinks that the people who surround him in the community may stay next to him all his life. This contrasts with the experience in his previous life as a small enterpreneur. The prospect of living close to the same people for long time leads to putting more effort in the relationships and makes them deep. In the city, life is much more transitory. However, surrounded by many individuals, one can still feel lonely. Someone who spend some time in Acorn community said that the main reason for not wanting to join was the nature of the relationships this person experienced in the community.
One of the toughest and potentially conflictous decisions is attributing someone membership after the probationary period. Once someone is rejected, it usually means not seeing this person anymore. Several members responded that the main stressful event in the community life was related to a romantic break-up. Working together may contribute to conflict escalation between romantic partners. Break-ups are hard enough but living and working with the ex may be even harder. Community may be involved in mediating between ex-partners like in other conflicts between members. Often one of the partners leaves the community or takes a break after a romantic break-up.
Distractions and cultural life
Paxus Calta (member of Acorn and Twin Oaks community, also involved in Point A project) writes that the social change needs creating better (more fun) parties . One of the interviewees observed that because of the non-hierarchy, there is little need for doing non-sense, except for excitement and fun. Time is also freed because there is no need to commute to work and some of the daily chores and errands are mutualized (cooking, food provision, shopping, administrative tasks, cleaning collective spaces).
Both communities, Acorn and Twin Oaks, have a huge collection of books and magazine subscriptions. One of Acorn’s members participates in nearby theater and singing projects. Many Accorners play music and sing. Intentional communities have their festivals and gatherings, which is also an occasion for people not yet initiated in the community movement to network and find a project. Travelling is also a way to escape the routine. Communards often stay in other communities to have a change of air and get inspiration. One of the new members found it difficult to give up her personal car, which symbolized to her a sense of personal freedom. She needs sometimes to get out of community for a ride to feel good. Doing shopping trips is enough to keep balanced. Another member finds winter time when people hang out more at home and the business is busier difficult at times. Someone else missed the bathroom on her own and taking a long hot bath. With so many people around — not possible.
I observed that people would talk about work and community matters a lot during “free time.” It was sometimes not clear whether it is already the free time or part of community affairs discussion. The distinction between work and “life” was blurred. Always there are potential details to be discussed, business ideas to explore, and agreements to be made. One of my interviewees found it stressful to search for things to do in the low business season. Someone who spent some time with community members observed that the ongoing considerations about labor-creditability of one’s activities leads to internalized obsession with work instead of being liberated from work as an alternative to the capitalist system.
Although there is no external control system to assure labor contribution, members internalize the control. They may care more about the opinion of others than in the traditional workplace because they share life and not only work with other members. One interviewee realized that when she was smoking with other members at noon, she said what she had done in the morning so that people around her did not think that she chilled out all the day. The need to share what one has done and get appreciation was very important to many interviewed.
Living Together is an Art
Communards recognize that being closer and more inter-dependent than it is usually the case in the relationships outside one’s family is a challenge. Acorn community has a system of maintaining good relationships among its members: 1) regular personal updates; 2) no “withholds”; 3) mediation in conflicts. The first measure consists of weekly check-ins — short sharing of how one feels during a weekly meeting, presenting one’s wellbeing and plans towards the community once a year, and obligation to talk with each community member in a one-on-one conversation at least once a year. The latter one is reported during the weekly community meeting. For example, someone shared that the obligatory conversation made her realize that she had a lot in common with someone she hardly talked to all the year. The principle of “no withholds” bases on the premise that long-term frustration may result in explosion or bad atmosphere. Members schedule an appointment to share their frustration. The addressee of this revealing is supposed to abstain from responding during certain time and integrate the feedback. In a situation of a conflict between two members, a third person may be involved. People in conflict engage in a mediation process until it is resolved. This is one of the examples of such a conflict that I got from an interview: One member believes that another member caused damages to the community on purpose and he wants the accused member to leave the community.
Living in a community requires a lot of learning and self-exploration. One needs to embrace a different way of being with other people. This aspect of personal development was mentioned by several of the interviewees as their motivation to live in an egalitarian community. For example, in a conflict situation or while feeling frustration one cannot use the position of power but rather needs to work on oneself and on their communication skills. For example, to have an influence on community’s affairs, it requires continual work on one’s social capital within the community and showing commitment to it. Getting interest or collaboration of other members on a project that one wants to work on requires a lot of communication work. One of my interviewees used to work odd jobs before joining the community. She was already against the capitalist system at that time and she pursued work with disengagement, basically doing as little as possible. Living in capitalism felt deadening to her, living in the community is emotionally challenging and enriching for her personal development.
At the collective level, a new kind of democracy and the postcapitalist mode of production also requires personal growth. Community experience can serve as lessons about the inner transformations and personal challenges that may turn out useful in creating a new system.
Sources and acknowledgements
I spent three weeks in August 2014 at Acorn community in Virginia where I conducted interviews with 15 inhabitants of this community (accounting for about half of the membership). My research trip has been co-financed by a Goteo crowdfunding campaign. The following people have contributed to the Goteo crowdfunding campaign: pixocode, Daycoin Project, Olivier, Paul Wuersig, María, Julian Canaves. I would like to express my gratitude to these and eight other co-financers. Some inspiration comes from four public meetings with a member of East Wind community (http://eastwind.org), which I organized in October 2014, in Strasbourg, France. Some parts of this article have been published on P2P Foundation Blog in Creative Commons licensed three-part analysis of this community in the context of peer production model as a proposal of re-structuring work. GPaul Blundell, former communard of Acorn where he spent 10 years, and now an organizer of Point A DC, has provided editing help in these three articles.